Unknown Pleasures: 10 of the best new Steam games

Welcome back to Unknown Pleasures, our weekly round-up of ten promising but under-reported games from the torrent of new releases on Steam over the past seven days. I play a glut of titles for ten minutes each, discard any rotten ones, then choose which ten make the weekly round-up, as well as picking one stand-out favourite.

This week: myriad monochrome, haunted ice stations, smart shump remixes and the singular glory of painted lines.

Conarium

An unashamedly Lovecraft-inspired first-person adventure-horror game, lookin’ mighty fine thanks to the Unreal Engine but soundin’ mighty silly thanks to an English-feigning lead actor whose every spoken line is a world tour. I suspect this is the kind of game that struggles to make its case if only played for ten minutes, but then again the terrifying likes of FINDING A ROLL OF SELLOTAPE and LOCKER FULL OF SMALL EASTER ISLAND STATUES aren’t the most immediate hooks.

Oppressively swirling snowstorms and a gloomily-lit, half-abandoned arctic base do lend Conarium some Thing-like atmosphere, however, and I’m curious to discover if it finds a rhythm – and its horror feet – despite an underwhelming start.

Monolith

Though initially causing consternation in the RPS chatroom due to a mistaken belief that it was something new from the studio behind FEAR, Blood and Shadow of Mordor, the good news is that this is a wee humdinger. Y’know how The Binding Of Isaac is a pairing of bullet-hell shmup and roguelike? This is that idea inverted – roguelike proc-gen and upgrade structure hung around actual pew-pew spaceship shooting. A shmup in which navigation through a network of random rooms is a logistical puzzle, rather than a linear run through handcrafted screens. It works extremely well – though lacking the clever-sick visual invention of Isaac, it’s got an air of gothic strangeness to its enemies and environments, and pulls off that permadeath just-one-more-try thing without feeling hollow. I’m definitely keeping this one around.

Drifting Lands

Also performing eugenics experiments on shmups and RPG concepts, Drifting Lands is an attractive side-scrolling shooter with a big emphasis on creating your own bespoke powerset. Feels a little like R-Type with a purpose beyond high scores, in that you’ll end each mission with a clutch of loot, money and points to spend on tailoring your ship to your preferred playstyle. It tries a bit too hard to push a rather flat storyline, and the tutorial section is something of a pop-up message assault on the senses, but the action feels like a sweet spot between manic and tactical, and I’m digging the highly tweakable upgrade path. I’m not usually much of a shmup fan, but this makes two I’m going to leave on my hard drive this week.

Zzzz-Zzzz-Zzzz

I have learned, over the years, to fear the self-proclaimed philosophical or psychological platformer – that legion of Braid descendants that feel they can say something meaningful about the human condition through the medium of repeatedly jumping and failing. The signs from afar for Z-Z-Z were not good – pseudo-profound quotes about dreaming and waking life, and spartan shots of endless platforms. The reality is something much more intriguing – a vaguely Metroid-structured series of challenges that combine jumping with interpretation of opaque dialogue. Even this early on, I found that it kept playing against type, surprising me with the nature of its obstacles and pulling off an appropriately dream-like slow unfurling of its oddball internal logic. My suspicion is that there is significant invention hiding underneath an unassuming surface, and I will indeed dig to see if that’s true.

Hell Warders

A more multiplayer-skewed Orcs Must Die, with just a touch of Warhammer-lite to it. It’s tower defence meets third-person stabbing/shooting (with a choice of classes to play as), but rather than placing towers and turrets you’re setting down units – pikemen and canonneers and demons and whatnot. Though this is primarily a visual change – the units pretty much stay in place and chop/shoot at anything which comes within range – it does make matches feel that much more like a battle rather than Home Alone. I’m not in love with the fact that unit/tower types you can place depends on which floating orbs you collect as you fling yourself about the place, but at the same time it’s a refreshing change from the usual waiting for resources to rack up until you can afford x or y. Pretty well put-together, I’d say, and again the units definitely have a touch to the Warhammers to them, in a time when tower defency stuff tends to incline towards the ‘toonier type of fantasy. There are single player challenges as well as multiplayer, and it’s in pretty good shape for an early access title.

Lines

Right then, this is lovely. It’s a minimalist puzzle game about painting lines, except it’s so laid-back that you don’t even paint the lines – you just dab a little dot on the ‘page’ then it automagically flows in any direction it can. If it covers more of the pattern than the other (AI-controlled) players, then you win. What perhaps sounds dry on paper is ten seconds of gentle tension in practice, as you use a combination of intuition and luck to divine a smart starting point. The tranquil piano soundtrack is reactive, so you get chirpier or anxious plinks and plonks depending on how your lines are doing, and all told it’s a purely joyful experience. A single idea executed with real panache – and wonderfully inventive about the ‘levels’ too. Racing paintlines across a silhouette of the Sydney opera house…

The Wall

A stealth-action game inspired by – and acting as a protest against – Chinese internet censorship. The over-literal interpretation of Tron-ish data-people using pickaxes to break down blockages placed around ‘GOOGLEE’ and ‘YouTobe’ is all a bit sixth form rather than in any way informative, but there’s decent tension to trying to find tools, keys and weapons while evading armed guards. If caught, you have a few seconds in which to cease all resistance and return to the shuffling queues of the obedient, which also lends it a race against time feel. It’s a bit messy in terms of balance and difficulty, though in fairness is in early access still, and I rather get the sense that it’ll be a short-lived affair (but it is only a couple of quid). Still: there’s some thoughtful stealth here, and as a record of another culture’s protest, it’s intriguing.

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap

Remake of a late-80s Master System game I’d never previously heard of. It’s a heavily timing-based platformer, with a nice line in requiring you to figure out your route around the castle – choose the wrong exit and you’ll be lobbed back a few rooms. This gives it an ever so slightly Metroid feel, in that you’re really learning the layout and even making a few leaps of faith. The standout feature, though, is surely the super-crisp art, newly redone for this version, and which looks like someone just drew their webcomic directly onto my monitor. It’s not quite for me, as boss fight timing feels like a bit of a grind, but it’s slick and pretty and full marks for the title screen logo switching to ‘Wonder Girl’ if you pick the women character option.

Armed with Wings: Rearmed

Strikingly attractive side-scrolling action game, and again a remake of something I’d managed to miss, in this case a 2008 Flash game from Newgrounds. The monochrome, silhouette-based art works very well, and very much comes across as style rather than a gimmick, while puzzle-solving hinges around using a pet eagle to find items and push switches for, rather than the endless jumping the screenshot might suggest. In fact, jumping is essentially automatic here, the focus instead being on intense slicey-dicey combat with an array of different weapons, so it wouldn’t be right to refer to this as platformer, despite appearances. It’s a familiar thing in its way, but it’s very well done.

Crowman & Wolfboy

Another black and white side-scroller, though despite some impressively apocalyptic cutscene work, the in-game art isn’t as impressive as Armed With Wings’. C&W maintains a menacing tone, however, blending a nightmare fuel soundtrack with constant pursuit by ‘the darkness’ – though not as terrifying as being chased down a blind alley by a big-toothed faux-metaller from the noughties. This is a fusion of trad. platformer and endless runner: you can’t stop moving cos the darkness will catch you, which means there are hard choices to be made in terms of which places you actually try and reach. There’s some interesting physics too, in that you have limited flight – Crowman picks up Wolfboy, but his weight means he’ll only briefly stay aloft, and working out how to best use this while something all-consuming forever snaps at your heels is the key challenge. Well-crafted for sure, but silhouettey platformers are beginning to overstay their welcome these days.

That’s the ten, which brings me to choosing my pick of the week. This time, it’s…

Lines!

A wonderful little thing, gorgeous and clever, total unison of idea and aesthetic, and deftly put me into a tranquil state of mind despite today being a particularly stressful day for much of the United Kingdom.

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37 Comments

  1. spindaden says:

    This is a nice feature. Great idea, thanks for doing it.

  2. Viroso says:

    I wish you guys would also embed videos. Or, now that you have sold out to the man, make it a whole video feature. Like, 15s snippets of each game introduced by a 30s opening presentation of RPS’ logo complete with shotgun sound effects and blood splatters.

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      Drib says:

      I can never quite tell when terrible ideas are sarcasm or just legitimately people who think terrible ideas are good.

      • ButteringSundays says:

        I have to second the request for videos. If I’m even mildy interested in a game mentioned on RPS looking up gameplay is literally the first thing I do. If RPS can get some YouTube cashmoney and provide more engaging content surely that’s a win win.

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        tigerfort says:

        I wouldn’t be opposed to having each game’s trailer embedded instead of a screenshot, although the link to their steam page makes it easy enough to find that anyway.

    • Frank says:

      Against. Half the time RPS embeds videos, the full screen clicky thing is missing and I need to find a way to open in a new tab anyways. (Like Drib, not sure if you’re serious, though.)

    • Alec Meer says:

      Will look to include trailers. Probably too time consuming to create my own vids for this though.

    • bonuswavepilot says:

      Well, while we’re playing Democracy, I’d like to vote for keeping the words as the main vector of meaning delivery. (Nothing against also having gameplay/trailer videos or whatever, but please, please don’t go ‘full video’)

  3. Killy_V says:

    Brigador rerelease is awesome !

  4. KDR_11k says:

    I’ll dispute the R-Type comparison for Drifting Lands and point more at Darius (specifically Dariusburst Chronicle Saviors), including the fishy ship designs.

  5. Pravin Lal's Nuclear Arsenal says:

    This feature is the best idea you guys have had in a while. Plus, we all care about Alec’s well being.
    Cheery RPS vassal PC Gamer has been running a similar feature in a while (thus retroactively STEALING your idea from the future, the time traveling rascals!), which I also recommend.

    That Armed with Wings looks cool. I’m a bit of a sucker for monochrome art styles.

  6. karthink says:

    Love this feature. Please keep it going.

  7. ButteringSundays says:

    Great feature! For me this is what RPS is all about – look forward to the weeks to come.

  8. TheDreamlord says:

    I’d also like to say that this is a great new feature, well done for making a lot of effort the last few months to improve the quality of RPS. Onwards and upwards!

  9. JOJOFACE says:

    11th game that’s worth mentioning is a little game called EMPORIUM. Heavily Kentucky Route Zero inspired visuals and storytelling, it’s a really short pretty depressing little game. I completed my first run through in 30 minutes – not sure if I’ll pursue the other 4 endings, but it was a nice, small experience for $2.

  10. allthingslive says:

    I like this idea a lot. I’m not a big fan of the constant patch update posts for whatever is trendy, or much of the personalized content to be honest. I mostly come here to find new games and this is perfect for the anti-social assholes like me, it cuts straight to the point.

    • ogopogo says:

      Yes, this is actually a *useful* sort of column, a tilling-the-soil kinda deal. Much like those fun “Minimum System Requirement Theatre” articles, this kind of article actually saves me time and grief.

      I got my desktop that can manage 60fps for Witcher 3/GTA V but next week on on the road I’m stuck w/ my sprightly ol’ core 2 duo laptop and its meh nvidia mobile gpu. I love how the current market has an embarrassment of riches available for this situation, a couple lifetime’s worth of games. “Oh, you’ve only got the equivalent of a portable xbox 360? Here’s everything you could possibly want.” We’re living in one of those good patches in gaming history and I’m lovin it.

  11. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap was one of the first video games I became really obsessed with. When I was around 5 or 6, my parents picked up a Master System with a big box of games at a garage sale and made my frelling year by surprising me with it. Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon’s Trap was probably the best game in the bunch, with Double Dragon and Altered Beast coming in second and third place, respectively.

    I never got very far – I think there’s an undead dragon in there somewhere that I never managed to beat – so I’m itching to pick it up now that there’s a remake on Steam. All the more so because of those adorable hand-drawn graphics (squee).

    • TheAngriestHobo says:

      I’m not usually one to respond to my own posts, but too much time has gone by to edit it, and this is worth mentioning.

      It sounds like Alec didn’t manage to get past the intro dungeon, so potential buyers should know that the blurb isn’t fully representative of the game (no disrespect intended; I can appreciate how many different games he has to make time for). After you beat Mecha Dragon, you end up in the city, which acts as a hub from that point forwards. The city has shops with various NPCs you can interact with to some degree, and a number of routes you can pursue.

      The metroidvania label was apt – as you progress, you get transformed into various animal-people with different abilities, some of which give you access to new areas (for example, mouse-boy can climb walls, and piranha-boy can swim). You can also acquire or buy gear and one-use abilities to help you take out some of the trickier monsters.

      Since I made the original post, I’ve picked the game up and I can say that I’m extremely impressed with the art and music. It’s faithful to the original while still feeling modern and authentic. You can really tell that this project was a real labour of love.

    • LotteryDiscounts says:

      Also worth noting that you can flip back and forth between modern graphics and 8-bit at the press of a button, as well as between the new/original soundtrack and sfx. The score of the game was faithfully redone using classical instruments, and you can watch some of the songs being recorded in the gallery. Dude put a ton of work and care into making that game. You can tell how much he loved the original.

      Also, high fives for the WB fandom. WB in Monster World for Genesis was the first game I ever played start-to-finish. Been a fan since. Not sure how familiar you are with the other games in the series, but if you haven’t played Monster World IV, I highly recommend it.

      • valuum says:

        Funny with the different titles, it was called Wonder boy in monsterland for the c64 (uhm, I’m just randomly assuming it’s the same game here). My parents bought it on a casette that also had 3 other games, in a fascinatingly orange box. I was also too young and terrible at games to play it well at first, and didnt discover that it was a great games until years later. *sniff* memories..

        edit: Woah, the entire game, in 10 minutes: link to youtube.com !

        • TheAngriestHobo says:

          Wonder Boy in Monster Land was a separate game (I had both for the Master System). It was also quite good, but didn’t have the transformation mechanics.

          It also had some of the creepiest box art I’ve ever seen.

      • TheAngriestHobo says:

        Thanks for the recommendation! *high fives back*

        I’ve played Wonder Boy in Monster Land, but I had never even heard of Monster World. I might just have to download an emulator for this.

  12. UmungoBungo says:

    Regarding Hell Warders – does anyone have a solid recommendation for First or 3 person shooter mixed with Tower Defence? Really enjoyed Horde mode in Gears of War 3 on 360. Had a crack with Orcs Must Die 2… really didn’t like the shooting. Sanctum looks ok? Gears of War 4 I assume is great but not 100% sure I could run it well.

    • Premium User Badge

      Qazinsky says:

      The only ones I can think of off the top of my head are Dungeon Defenders 1 & 2. I cannot really say how good the shooting is, it’s either spells or bows if i remember correctly, but at least Dungeon Defenders 2 is Free to play, so you can try it and judge for yourself.

  13. Sic says:

    This is the best feature on RPS.

    Please, pretty please with sugar on top, keep it going.

  14. Shadax says:

    It’s worth noting that the above description of Wonder Boy is just for the opening area. Assuming not much has changed from the original version, this is a (much much) less frustrating pastiche of the last level of Wonder Boy in Monster Land. From there, the game opens up significantly to a pleasant Metroidvania with the barest of RPG elements where progress is gated behind multiple transformations. I can’t speak for the remake, but the PC Engine version is one of my favorite games of all time.

    As a fun fact, this is a remake of Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon’s Trap, which as the title suggests, is the fourth Wonder Boy game and the second Monster World game. Thankfully, the next game in the series is helpfully titled Wonder Boy 5: Monster World 3 to clear matters up!

  15. floogles says:

    Wow Alec this is a great idea for a column, really hope this stays a thing.

  16. farmer Jinbe says:

    Pretty good list, but you really should have mentioned that lovely, wonderful, gorgeous and clever game Lines!

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